John Galloway talks to one of the UK's leading designers for special needs

'The space in between is where you learn'"Innovation can be as simple as using the wrong tools because you don't have the right ones to hand," suggests Wendy Keay-Bright (pictured), Reader in Inclusive Design at Cardiff School of Art and Design.

It is this ability to take what we have and to find new ways of using it, to find fresh purposes for existing objects, that makes everyone a potential innovator. "Starting from what we have and looking at it in a different way," she explains, "and just looking at it because it has particular attributes of it's own, values of its own, without the necessity always to be functioning or problem solving."

It is an approach that has seen Wendy develop the widely acclaimed Reactickles, the creation of which is almost serendipitous, not problem driven. The combined roles of lecturer and mother found her developing computer programming skills by creating resources to help her son learn to read.

When his school saw them they asked if she could develop them further for pupils with special educational needs, in particular those with autistic spectrum disorders. Although not sure of what to create, being unclear of the learning difficulties this presented, she began to work with the teaching staff, who she considers to be the really innovative ones.

The outcome is a range of games that are entirely abstract (see video below) but conform to laws of physics, such as elasticity or gravity, some with sound, some monochrome, others in glaring colours or subtle pastel shades. All designed to develop a concept of play in those where this is inhibited, and to provide a distraction at times of heightened anxiety.

With a background in animation and design, Wendy came to the project with a fresh approach, "exploring 'what if'" rather than, "trying to solve a problem". While, at that time, she didn't understand the impact of her creation upon the pupils, she could "appreciate that the teachers I was working with were really seeing something interesting". Having no intended outcome she was able to respond to the staff's ideas and the pupils' responses without preconceptions: "If I had gone in there with the idea that I had to solve a problem then it would have been a very different project."

It was the response of the teachers that moved the project on. It was "the way the teachers tried things out", she says, that brought about "reactions from the children that they hadn't seen before either". Wendy believes that it is the way in which something is used that provides the essence of innovation: "I think that's innovation really, being given something where you remove the necessity to perform a task and therefore you can invent your own purpose."

From Wendy's perspective innovation is a process starting with observation and exploration of how something could be used, which provides inspiration and appropriation to create a new use. "It is not about creating something new," she explains. "It is about that process where we use our existing knowledge, coupled with the environment and the way we use tools, to create something else." The focus is on new uses rather than new creations. "We have enough stuff. I am not interested in making something new," she declares.

It is an approach she has applied to several other projects. In an early years setting she worked with ordinary objects but included some hi-tech tweaks. So a cardboard box fitted with a Wii controller provided a familiar play thing, which then brought about unexpected responses on a screen when it was moved around.

The fewer rules and restrictions there were, the more they found to talk about

At the Dyscovery Centre, in Newport, children identified as dyspraxic (a condition that affects speech and language, and also co-ordination) shared games on iPods. The fewer rules and restrictions there were, the more they found to talk about and, in the process, they created their own ways to play.

Wendy has also been involved at a workshop with the Touch Trust – which focuses on learning through touch and movement – at Cardiff Millennium centre. Working with designers and professionals involved with people with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), they looked at how "technology could offer a different type of experience, or enhance an existing one", with an approach of "innovating on the basis of what people do when they get together, when they invent and collaborate".

Her unconventional approach to innovation extends to what she regards as its inhibitors, and paradoxically extending to things that are often seen as drivers. "Problem solving can be an inhibitor," she suggests, because "things are limited in their use because they are used for solving problems" rather than looking for new uses for them. Similarly, research can get in the way because "sometimes you feel that you have to follow what is accepted as knowledge and then you are not open to interpretation" – suggesting that once we know what something is for we find it difficult to find other uses for it. One familiar aspect of research – questionnaires – comes in for particular criticism because they often give "a limited range of answers" and they focus on "the questions we know".
Using the 'Reactickles' program on a SMART Table

Wendy also toys with the idea of money inhibiting innovation, as it encourages people to buy things in rather than find innovative uses for what they already have: "I have found with my own work the lack of money sometimes enables more innovative, playful ways to do things." On reflection she adds, "But I would rather have a bit more money to do some of these projects."

Wendy's understanding of innovation has a clear approach and a defined, cyclical process – so can it be taught? "I think it can," she begins. As such creativity is innate in all of us she suggests, "It can be encouraged."

What she believes can make the difference is giving students time to think, rather than filling their time with activity. "We undervalue how thoughtful and contemplative our pupils are by constantly giving them stuff to do," she points out.

She explains that some of her undergraduate students felt that there were slack times when they were waiting for teachers to set the next assignment. Her response? "The space in between is where you learn. What we do is teach; learning is the space in between. And if you don't have the space in between then you can't learn."

Wendy's is an approach to innovation that turns it on its head. It is a process driven by changing perspectives rather than solving problems, and seeks to finds new uses rather than creating new things. An important part of the process is time to think and reflect, not necessarily focused on any particular issue, which she personally does through yoga and walking.

"When you walk you get into a particular rhythm where you are thinking about things and other things come to the surface. When I am in that rhythm that is when the ideas go somewhere. That is when the ideas translate."

Conditions for Innovation

  • The process of innovation starts by "looking at what we have in a different way." It is a cyclical process of inspiration, observation, exploration, improvisation, and appropriation, that is underpinned by simplicity and which is driven by collaboration.
  • "I think of that whole process as collaborative," believes Wendy, as inspiration comes from people around her, and observation involves listening to others, whilst innovation is iterative, so requires constant feedback.
  • The elements of the process, all supported by notions of simplicity and collaborative practices are:
    Inspiration – looking for new uses for what we have.
    Observation – starting by looking at how we already use things.
    Exploration – trying out different options.
    Improvisation – putting ideas into practice to see how people respond.
    Appropriation – when a novel use becomes embedded and is no longer new.

Sources of Inspiration

  • Wendy's principle role is as a teacher, and it is through this that much of her inspiration comes. "I do love teaching, and very often I get inspiration, and innovation happens, through enabling a student to do something,” she says. “You can trigger something in their imagination and they go off to do something great."
  • However, although her role is in design, her background is in animation and many of her influences come from there. "The people who were my early influences are people like Norman Maclaren, and probably even more Len Lye," who she credits as helping to shape her approach to design, along with the National Film Board of Canada. "They are animators who really invented narrative and created film based on the idea of the feel of the film. What the film could do, the kinetics and so on."
  • Other influences come from a similar thread of creativity:
    "Eleanor Glover, who does a lot with shadow puppets. She uses ordinary things that are lying around, and creates extraordinary narratives."
    And a man with a similar role to her own, of combining design and technology, John Maeda who, "has been a really strong influence."


Cardiff School of Art and Design
The Touch Trust
Reactickles blog

John GallowayJohn Galloway works as advisory teacher for ICT/SEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, London, and as a freelance writer and consultant.  He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning.